The Christlike servant attitude to which I’m called in all of life can make me feel, in the workplace, more like a doormat than a human. How do I balance getting paid an appropriate wage with being a generous giver of my talents and time?
We often assume servants are pushovers because we’ve taken the image of a servant from our culturally shaped imaginations and imported it wholesale into our vision of what it means to follow Christ. One of the best correctives is to remember that Christ does not simply call his followers to be “servants” in abstraction—he calls us to be servant leaders. And this makes all the difference.
Christ does not simply call his followers to be ‘servants’ in abstraction—he calls us to be servant leaders. And this makes all the difference.
Perhaps the most famous passage on Christ’s call to servanthood is Mark 10:42–45. There Jesus instructs his disciples that “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”
The context of this passage is James and John’s request to sit at Jesus’s right and left when he is in glory. Jesus responds by discussing the leadership models of the Gentile nations—their tendency to “lord it over” their people and “exercise authority over them.” The Gentiles used their power to impose their will on others. We see this tendency in the winner-take-all mentality so prevalent in our society today, especially in many corporate workplaces.
In contrast, Jesus said whoever would be “great”—whoever wants to rule or to lead—must be a servant. Even the greatest leader of all “came not to be served but to serve.”
But what does that look like to follow Christ’s example?
Passive Submission vs. Proactive Activity
We imagine a servant as someone who puts the needs and desires of others first. But we also imagine they do so passively, not speaking up or taking action unless they’re told what to do. Others make decisions for them, which they carry out. There’s no creativity, no joy, no passion, no initiative—none of the decision-making that makes work joyful.
Christlike servant leaders are proactive rather than passive, creative rather than uninventive, and enthusiastic ‘cheerful givers’ rather than dispassionate pawns.
But Christlike servant leaders are proactive rather than passive, creative rather than uninventive, and enthusiastic “cheerful givers” rather than dispassionate pawns. They develop creative solutions to meet the needs around them, winsomely persuade with their others-oriented vision, and proactively help to lead toward greater flourishing.
Rather than completing the bare minimum of their assignments, servant leaders go above and beyond. They’re able to take orders and submit to authority, but also pursue and exercise authority in proper, God-glorifying ways that are distinct from the manipulative power-playing of the world. Servant leaders are visionary, creative, proactive servants.
Sometimes we think “serving” means not standing up for ourselves. But Christian service doesn’t diminish concern for the self; it simply reprioritizes interests so that we seek those of others above our own. Christlike servant leaders thus retain a sense of agency, and are able to speak up against wrong—not in malice or spite, but to speak the truth in love. They confront their offenders for their good and for the sake of righteousness (e.g., Matt. 18:15–20).
The biblical model of servant leadership calls us to please God, to fear him, above all others. Paul writes:
Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Col. 3:22–24)
We serve a higher Master, live by higher principles, and work for a higher cause than our “earthly masters”—our bosses, stakeholders, coworkers, or clients. We are therefore freed from fear to speak the truth in love to them, which includes speaking up when we are mistreated, when our rights are violated, or when fair wages withheld from us.
It doesn’t violate the spirit of Christlike servant leadership to speak up about your needs or about being mistreated.
How Workplaces Thrive
There may be times where you choose to forego the wages you have a right to, as Paul did when he surrendered his rights to compensation from the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 9). But this is the exception, not the norm. Workers and servants have a “right” to fair wages. In that same passage, Paul recognizes that “those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel,” and that “you shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” By voluntarily giving up his right in a specific situation, Paul affirms the right of all workers to a fair wage.
Being a true Christlike servant is not at odds with the workplace. Workplaces thrive with servant leaders.
I’ll end with this: being a Christlike servant leader is not at odds with the workplace. Workplaces thrive with servant leaders. Companies need them, and many look for them. There are multiple books and business programs—both Christian and non-Christian—promoting healthy business leadership as servant leadership.
That the business world has picked up on the benefits of Jesus’s teaching on leadership is an affirmation that God’s ways align with the grain of the universe. They lead to human flourishing—in the workplace and elsewhere.
So when you feel like a doormat, don’t give up your desire to be a servant in the workplace. Just adjust your definition of servant.